In producing Broadway's longest-running musical revival, the marketing geniuses behind "Chicago" have alchemized stunt casting into its own special kind of dark art.
In the years since the wickedly joyous restaging of Bob Fosse's 1975 musical opened in 1996, the revolving door of genuine star and starlet attractions has included the preposterous (Melanie Griffith, who could neither sing nor dance), the cynical (Jerry Springer) and the merely sad (add reality-TV name here).
But the very smartest stunt casting -- at least since Bebe Neuwirth, the ultimate Tony-winning Velma Kelly, returned 10 years later as fellow murdering floozy Roxie Hart -- is happening right now.
By that we mean that Neuwirth, 55, is back in the show. But this time, she is cast way against foreseeable type as "Mama" Morton, corrupt matron of the gorgeous-women-who- murder-their-men wing of the Cook County Jail.
"All kinds of women have played the matron," she told me in a recent phone interview, admitting that, of course, she hadn't actually dreamed of growing into the role -- or, for that matter, making what's believed to be Broadway history as the only star to play three different leads in a show.
"There have been matrons of different ages, races, sizes, shapes," she said, even though Fosse had created the character as "a Sophie Tucker type in an evening of vaudeville" and she was first portrayed in the hit revival by comic character actress Marcia Lewis. "Here I am, this tiny little girl...."
Of course, "tiny little girl" is hardly the description that anyone who has seen Neuwirth command the stage, or embody the formidable Lilith in "Cheers" (with two Emmys), and "Frasier," or, now, clash with cop Tom Selleck in "Blue Bloods."
Whatever her quantitative size, it's her big presence that audiences remember. She won her first Tony as the supporting whore -- sorry, taxi dancer -- in the 1986 revival of Fosse's "Sweet Charity." Two years before "Chicago," she slinked authoritatively into Gwen Verdon's silk stockings as Lola, temptress from hell, in the revival of "Damn Yankees."
And then there was her Velma, and her second Tony, an elegant thug in a teeny black slip dress who curled her legs around a 10-foot ladder, or pretended she never before had managed to land a cartwheel into a split -- twice -- in her vaudeville number, or made a simple bentwood chair into a witty accomplice in a grand exit that will last among the great theatrical farewells.
She seemed surprised when told she specializes in beautiful bad people, even after she was so cartoon perfect in 2010 as the diabolically gorgeous and goofy Morticia in "The Addams Family."
"I guess so, yeah," she admitted. "The blond soprano is the leading lady, while the brunette is the wisecracking, tough-as-nails, heart-of-gold dancer and belter. It's an archetypal thing in musical theater. But I never played Velma as a murderess. She was a burlesque performer, a big ham with delusions of grandeur."
Although Neuwirth started ballet back home in Princeton when just 5 and majored in dance at Juilliard, she fell in love with musicals, especially Fosse musicals, when she saw "Pippin" at 13. "I had no idea that Fosse was God," she recalled her young self with a laugh, "but I saw myself on that stage. I thought, 'That's me.' I felt I was in it."
But musicals and her provocative solo cabarets are hardly her only preoccupation. Just as "Cheers" fans were startled to see Lilith dance and sing and vamp on Broadway, people who know Neuwirth as a musical star are still often surprised to encounter her in plays.
In what in 2001 was a rare nonmusical performance, she brought her vibrancy and intelligence to two very different Jewish sisters in Richard Greenberg's "Everett Beekin." And in 2012, she played a world-weary but wise aging soprano in Terrence McNally's "Golden Age," followed almost immediately by her local Shakespeare debut as an enchanting Hippolyta/Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the tiny Classic Stage Company.
So I had to ask. If someone woke her up in the middle of the night and said she had to pick between musicals, dramas and TV, what would she say? "I'd go back to sleep," she growled. I pressed the question. "Since I danced first, I think I'd have to pick being onstage. The live medium. But I simply love performing, and I'd rather go back to sleep."
Right now, there isn't time for that -- or the need to choose. Earlier this month, she taped the fourth episode of "Blue Bloods." "I was asked for two episodes, then asked for two more." She can't say what happens with Selleck's character, but "it's really interesting."
Mostly, she is Mama. She said it's "surreal" to watch other actresses play her former roles. "I can't really describe it, but it's very, very strange. But it's also exciting and fun, which is why I agreed to do it."
She has no opinion about watching those, well, other actresses in the movie "Chicago" because, she said with an almost audible shrug, "I didn't see it. I don't see a lot of movies, so this is another movie I didn't see."
At least she gets to sing "Class," the hilariously impolite duet between Mama and Velma, which was cut from the movie. She says that doing the number from the other side, however, is "difficult squared. It's such an exquisite piece, but it's exponentially more difficult to sing the other part. Now, I sing the harmony, not the melody, which is a very strange moment for me."
It clearly doesn't seem strange to director Walter Bobbie, who says "Bebe's take on Mama Morton is a rock-solid revelation. Seventeen years after winning the Tony playing Velma and later playing Roxie, she continues to be the heartbeat of 'Chicago.' I just love her."
Producer Barry Weissler says he feels just as passionate about the importance of the actress to the brand of the show. "I've said it before, but Bebe Neuwirth is 'Chicago.' It's a part of her DNA as an artist ... her approach to the role, the style, the storytelling -- it's something that can't be replicated."
Nobody in the theater has ever done sleaze or loved women quite like Fosse, the director-choreographer whose death in 1987 left a hole the size of an abyss in the grown-up razzle-dazzle musical form. And Neuwirth, in the years before her two hip replacements, reveled in Fosse's patented body-part isolation, the slow ooze and the drop-dead sexy noodle look. She liked to move her knees slightly turned inward, a delightfully silly touch that suggested a supermodel crossing her eyes.
"Chicago," ahead of its time in 1975, really came into its own as post-O.J. America got wise to the darker side of the justice system, the press and fame. In a satire -- not to mention a culture -- that celebrates phony celebrity, Neuwirth has always been the real thing.